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May 29, 2014

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University graduates look to clean up as ayi

THREE years after gaining a degree in politics and administration from Xinjiang University, 23-year-old Zhou Yanyan should by now be well on her way up the corporate ladder.

In actual fact, she recently celebrated three months as a domestic helper — or ayi — in Shanghai.

Like many graduates of her generation, Zhou has given up her professional ambitions for the more lucrative world of cleaning, cooking and childcare.

“To me, being an ayi is a good opportunity to make money while accumulating experience,” she said.

After graduating from university in 2011, Zhou worked as an office clerk in her hometown of Suqian, in east China’s Jiangsu Province. She relocated to Shanghai in February.

Her goal now is to become a yue sao, or maternity maid. These specialist ayi have expertise in caring for newborn babies and generally live with new parents for the first month after the birth of their child.

According to a poll of 70,000 registered domestic helpers by industry website, the average yue sao last year earned between 7,000 (US$1,100) and 10,000 yuan per month.

Working as a clerk, Zhou was earning just 2,500 yuan a month.

“The income gap is just too big,” said Qin Yanya, a 25-year-old from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

The Guangxi University graduate quit her 1,500 yuan a month job in human resources and is now also training to become a yue sao.

Her decision came as no surprise to industry expert Bai Yanfei.

“There’s been a definite increase in the number of college students looking to become ayi,” said the boss of Shanghai Gongxin Domestic Service Co.

“It’s no longer regarded as a low-status position,” he said.

According to, more than 12 percent of ayi surveyed had a college degree or higher.

“It’s more fun learning how to bath a baby or change its diaper than it is filing and printing documents in an office all day,” Zhou said.

Over the past three months, Zhou has undertaken theoretical and practical yue sao training courses. She’s now waiting for the results of an exam taken last month to get her yue sao certificate from the government.

After working as an intern alongside experienced yue sao at a baby care center, she said she is confident she did enough to pass.

But while many graduates are keen to become ayi, not everyone thinks they have the skills necessary to thrive.

Cai Hong is a mother-and-child expert who runs a training center for yue sao.

“When they’re starting out, college students are often stiff and uncoordinated in the practical tests,” said Cai, who previously worked as a senior nurse at Renji Hospital.

Vocational school graduates tend to be quicker learners as they have more manual dexterity, which is very important when caring for babies and young children, she said.

Bai said that while college graduates are popular among some families, as they might be able to use their academic skills to help children with their homework, they tend to be less dedicated to the profession.

“They are more likely to be attracted by other opportunities,” he said, adding that just one in five college graduates who start his training courses actually finish them.

The sentiment was echoed in a comment by Zhou.

“I’m accumulating capital and experience so that one day I can set up my own domestic services company,” she said.

Despite suggesting that working as an ayi is more acceptable these days, Bai said that “face” can still be an issue for some people.

“Most college graduates working as ayi in Shanghai come from outside the city,” he said.

“They don’t want their friends and families to know what they are doing.”

Qin said she could never have worked as an ayi in her hometown.

“My family wouldn’t have allowed it,” she said. “They would lose face.”

Zhou said she tells her friends she now works as a tutor in Shanghai, while Qin tells people she is still working in human resources.

Ye Zhiming, vice president of Shanghai University, said that while he thinks it’s fine for graduates to work as ayi, it’s a shame if they never apply the skills they acquired at college.

“If they don’t it’s a waste of talent and educational resources,” he said.


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